Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sine Nomine and the sandbox

I talk a lot about DCC here, mainly because DCC is what I'm actually running right now.  And I'm running it because it's currently my favorite RPG; I'll probably explain that in another post.  But that doesn't mean it's the only RPG that I enjoy.  In fact, my interests aren't limited to OSR: for instance, now-venerable Over the Edge is my second-favorite RPG.

But OSR is definitely what has my attention these days, and that's what this blog is about.  In this post, I just wanted to say a few words of appreciation for Kevin Crawford's amazing work published by (his one-man operation) Sine Nomine.  I was reminded of this guy when I read through his latest work for Godbound, an adventure called Ten Buried Blades.  By the way, it's excellent.

Sine Nomine has been pumping out utterly fantastic sandbox content for an assortment of settings, always expressed through simple OSR mechanics. These settings are always terrific, and his variations on the OD&D ruleset are always clever adaptations to these settings.  But the real genius of Sine Nomine products is that they provide frameworks for the GM to create his or her own content in these settings.  By frameworks, I mostly mean a ton of well-designed tables chock full of inspiration and plot hooks.

Great stuff!  You may be wondering if I've ever actually run this stuff.  And the answer is: no, because I don't feel ready, yet.

As I've mentioned before, my current objective is to take a step back, run high-quality published material and pay attention to what works.  Sine Nomine settings are so much more demanding.  They give the GM a shitton of material, but at the end of the day, the GM still have to weave these inspirations into a coherent story.  Making that work as great adventure material requires that you already have good instincts.

I'm not trying to portray Sine Nomine campaigns as some kind of advanced elite discipline that should only be attempted by Zen masters of GMing.  That's not fair to Kevin, because his products should be widely known and understood. However, I would say that these games aren't for novice GMs, and you should be confident about your ability to improvise gameable material.

And when I say "improvise," I don't mean necessarily on-the-fly.  Ultimately, all GMing requires a certain amount of just-in-time creativity (protip: have a pre-generated list of setting-appropriate names at the ready), and I don't know if Stars Without Number is any more demanding on that account than Dragon Warriors (I loved this obscure gem back in the day...that's another post for another time).  A lot of the GM creative work in Silent Legions happens between sessions, rolling up new obstacles, resources and events between adventures, and working out the details that make it playable.  It's just that the last thing is no mean feat, at least for me at this stage.

Of course, you can probably run a Sine Nomine campaign with big dollops of published content.  After all, this post was inspired by a new adventure for Godbound.  All you have to do is drop this content into your world somewhere; if you avoid railroading players to these adventures then you can still call it a sandbox.  Everybody wins!

Anyway, even though I would not recommend that a novice GM runs a Sine Nomine campaign, I still suggest that all GMs check out Mr. Crawford's excellent publications.  His approach is to inspire you, rather than simply impress you, and this is valuable at any level of GMing.  Reading through the tables is a little like peeking backstage at a playhouse as a prospective director.

I'm not going to review any one product here, but I will provide a bunch of blurbs and links for some of my favorite Sine Nomine content.  I would want to actually run some of this stuff before trying to actually review it.

  • Silent Legions: I'm not sure if this is my favorite SN game, but I love so many of its ideas.  First of all, this is a "Mythos" setting, like Call of Cthulhu; except, in typical Sine Nomine style, it's full of tables to help the GM create his or her own Mythos!  As if it wasn't enough to face ancient space horrors, but now you can't even lean on Lovecraft.  On top of that, SL introduces a mechanic for combat called the "Slaughter Die" that makes everything so much more bloody, which is very appropriate for the setting. I only wish that Sine Nomine would create some more content for this setting.  I can see how that would be difficult when the actual gods in each campaign are bound to be different.
  • Stars Without Number (free version here): This is probably the flagship Sine Nomine product, since it has the most supplements.  It's also the largest in scope.  Whereas Silent Legions is a sandbox CoC, Stars Without Number is a sandbox Traveller (sorry, I have no idea what to link here).  SWN gives you a sprawling interstellar sandbox where a completely different world can be right around the corner.  It's so vast that the core rules alone might not provide enough of a grip for actual play; hence the many supplements. Speaking of which...
  • Suns of Gold: It was hard to choose a favorite SWN supplement (Darkness Visible was a strong contender), but I settled on Suns of Gold.  This is the framework for a campaign as traders and entrepreneurs, which seems like a great entry point into a giant science-fiction sandbox.  And it is!  There are clear and concise rules here to govern trading, travel, managing one's business empire, meddling in local politics, and of course generating the various complications that are the bread and butter of this sort of thing.
  • Godbound (free version here): I backed this Kickstarter, because I've become a Sine Nomine fanboy.  It's apparently supposed to be a sandbox OSR approach to Exalted, an RPG I had never heard much about till I heard about Godbound.  To those likewise unfamiliar with the genre, Godbound is a sandbox for demi-gods, where you play a character who is basically a super-powered half-human, half-deity.  I've never actually played a game like this, and my closest reference point would probably be the old Amber diceless RPG.  To be honest, I'm still digesting the rules for divine powers.  But the combat rules, which turn even low-level characters into serious ass-kickers from the get-go (originally developed for his single-player RPG, Scarlet Heroes), do an excellent job of emulating that kind of protagonist-power that the heroes of action movies tend to possess.  It's almost the opposite of the Slaughter Die mechanic in Silent Legions.
  • Ten Buried Blades: Like I said, I just picked this up, I've never run a Sine Nomine game and I'm new to demi-god RPGs.  That being said, this adventure is excellent.  In typical house style, the adventure isn't about following a specific plot or even map, but is instead about giving the GM a bunch of characters and situations.  What we have here are factions with complex motivations, and these factions further break down with key characters ranging from an apprentice sorceress ready to betray her master to a pair of thugs brawling over the fate of a prisoner.  This is juicy stuff!
Of course, there are plenty of Sine Nomine products that I didn't get into here.  I've given you some links to start with.  You may have noticed links to free versions of some of these games; SN is very generous with free versions of rules and various free supplements (especially for Stars Without Number).  Running a Sine Nomine campaign may be a bit more work, but it looks like Kevin Crawford has your back all the way.

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